Churchill’s Hitler Essays: He Knew the Führer from the Start

Churchill’s Hitler Essays: He Knew the Führer from the Start

Excerpt­ed from “The Three Lives of Churchill’s Hitler Essays,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er dis­close or sell your email address. It remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

The Hitler Essays:

“The Truth About Hitler,” The Strand Mag­a­zine, Novem­ber 1935, Cohen C481.
“Hitler and His Choice,” Great Con­tem­po­raries (Lon­don and New York, 1937), Cohen A105.
“This Age of Gov­ern­ment by Great Dic­ta­tors,” News of the World, 10 Octo­ber 1937, Cohen C535.7.

“Did Churchill ever admire Hitler?”

The ques­tion, per­plex­ing on its face, is nev­er­the­less some­times asked. Crit­ics have long quot­ed selec­tive­ly from Churchill to show he was “for Hitler before he was against him.”

For Bavar­i­an politi­cian Franz Joseph Strauss, the proof was Churchill’s writ­ing: “We may yet live to see Hitler a gen­tler fig­ure in a hap­pi­er age.”

His­to­ri­an Robert Rhodes James said Churchill “sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly” described Hitler’s “long, weary­ing bat­tle for the Ger­man heart.” In fact Churchill’s word was “wear­ing” not “weary­ing,” which was rather less sympathetic.

The sub­ject of those essays didn’t think Churchill was sym­pa­thet­ic at all. After read­ing “The Truth About Hitler” in 1935, an infu­ri­at­ed Führer instruct­ed his ambas­sador in Lon­don “to lodge a strong protest against ‘the per­son­al attack on the head of the Ger­man state.’”

Hitler essays
Churchill’s per­cep­tive arti­cle about Hitler in The Strand Mag­a­zine, Novem­ber 1935. (Ronald I. Cohen collection)

Hitler as “Great Contemporary”

“The Truth About Hitler,” first of the Hitler essays, appeared in late 1935. Decid­ing to repub­lish it in his 1937 book Great Con­tem­po­raries, Churchill cour­te­ous­ly sub­mit­ted his text to Sir Robert Van­sit­tart, Per­ma­nent Under­sec­re­tary at the For­eign Office. This was a care­ful choice, since Van­sit­tart had been some­what sup­port­ive of Churchill’s demands for rearmament.

But Van­sit­tart was on hol­i­day, so Churchill’s draft was read by Clif­ford Nor­ton, who rec­om­mend­ed it not appear at all:

[I]t is hard­ly to be thought that this arti­cle would be at all palat­able to the pow­ers that be in Ger­many. In the present rather del­i­cate state of our rela­tions with that coun­try, when one does not know which way the cat will jump, it might there­fore be ques­tioned whether repub­li­ca­tion just now was advisable.

Churchill agreed to cer­tain dele­tions which would “take the sting out of the arti­cle,” but said he “would cut out noth­ing” that he wouldn’t say “on pub­lic plat­forms.” This did not pre­vent him from restor­ing some of his dele­tions in anoth­er news­pa­per arti­cle. (Read on.)

It has been ques­tioned why Churchill made room in his book for Hitler. Was he more opti­mistic than he should have been about the Führer?  Perhaps—or as Mar­tin Gilbert often quipped, “per­haps not.” Hitler was a pop­u­lar sub­ject for writ­ers in the mid-1930s. Germany’s rear­ma­ment and inten­tions were mount­ing con­cerns. Yet, like all three of his Hitler essays, Churchill had lit­tle to say that was positive.

Churchill’s textual changes

Hitler essays
First Amer­i­can Edi­tion, Put­nams, 1937. (Mark Weber photo)

What part of his 1935 arti­cle did Churchill alter in Great Con­tem­po­raries? What did the For­eign Office per­suade him to “soft­en”? Bib­li­og­a­ra­pher Ronald Cohen came to my aid with a line-by-line dig­i­tal com­par­i­son of the “The Truth About Hitler” and the Great Con­tem­po­raries chap­ter. A Word doc­u­ment con­tain­ing the 1935 text, show­ing 1937 dele­tions in strike-throughs and high­lights, is avail­able to read­ers via email.

This exer­cise was worth the trou­ble because it answered many ques­tions. It shows that Churchill bare­ly changed his sen­ti­ments between 1935 and 1937. His dele­tions main­ly involve events well known in 1935 that were old news in 1937. His view of the Führer remained consistent.

Minor alterations

There was only one sig­nif­i­cant dele­tion in the ear­ly part of the Great Con­tem­po­raries chap­ter. That was Churchill’s 1935 asser­tion that his­to­ry would “deter­mine whether [Hitler] will rank in Val­hal­la with Per­i­cles, with Augus­tus and with Wash­ing­ton, or wel­ter in the infer­no of human scorn with Atti­la and Tamer­lane.”

It is not clear what if any­thing the For­eign Office saw wrong with that. Churchill may have pulled it as a ges­ture of com­pli­ance. Or maybe, by 1937, he had decid­ed that Hitler wouldn’t rank with Washington….

Nor were those words gone for long. On 10 Octo­ber 1937, six days after pub­lish­ing Great Con­tem­po­raries, they reap­peared. This was in Churchill’s third Hitler arti­cle, “This Age of Gov­ern­ment by Great Dic­ta­tors,” for News of the World. For good mea­sure, he wrote of Hitler’s “guilt of blood” and “wicked” methods.

Was this third essay a defi­ance of the For­eign Office? ​Or was it sim­ply writ­ten because Churchill was too good a writer to omit a mem­o­rable line? What­ev­er the rea­son, it does not mate­ri­al­ly change ​his opin­ion of Hitler.

Oth­er ear­ly changes to the 1935 text were almost all for read­abil­i­ty or cur­ren­cy. A minor dele­tion was his ref­er­ence to Hein­rich Brün­ing, the anti-Hitler Chan­cel­lor of Weimer Ger­many in 1930-32. In his orig­i­nal Strand arti­cle, Churchill wrote that the Nazis “even drove the patri­ot­ic Brün­ing, under threat of mur­der, from Ger­man soil.”

Safe in Amer­i­ca, Brün­ing became a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Har­vard, where he con­tin­ued to warn of Ger­man and Sovi­et expan­sion­ism. In 1937 Churchill asked him to proof­read his Great Con­tem­po­raries Hitler chap­ter. Brüning’s only com­ment was, “I admire very much your descrip­tion of the feel­ings of the Ger­man peo­ple in these four­teen years after the War and the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the British pol­i­cy at that time.”

The major deletion

Not appar­ent until Ronald Cohen’s tex­tu­al com­par­i­son was a long pas­sage at the end of the 1935 Strand arti­cle removed from Great Con­tem­po­raries. It described the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, when Hitler purged Ernst Röhm and the Sturmabteilung (SA). This appears in no edi­tion of the book, nor the Churchill Col­lect­ed Essays

This pas­sage did not appear in Churchill’s third arti­cle, “Gov­ern­ment of Great Dic­ta­tors.”  It may well have been con­sid­ered provoca­tive by the For­eign Office, albeit dat­ed. Read­ers must judge for them­selves. Since it is oth­er­wise inac­ces­si­ble, we repro­duced it in full on the Churchill Project web­site. Here are excerpts.

From “Government of Great Dictators”

[On 30 June 1934] many hun­dreds of men and some women were put to death in Ger­many with­out law, with­out accu­sa­tion, with­out tri­al. These per­sons rep­re­sent­ed many vari­eties of life and thought of Ger­many. There were Nazis and anti-Nazis. There were Gen­er­als and Com­mu­nists; there were Jews, Protes­tants, and Catholics. Some were rich and some were poor; some were young and some were old; some were famous and some were hum­ble. But all had one thing in com­mon, name­ly, that they were deemed to be obnox­ious or obstruc­tive to the Hitler regime. There­fore, they were blot­ted out.

The his­to­ry of the world is full of grue­some, squalid episodes of this kind, from the butcheries of ancient Rome and the num­ber­less mas­sacres which have stained the his­to­ry of Asia down to the “smellings out” of the Zulu and Hot­ten­tot witch doc­tors. But in all its ups and downs mankind has always recoiled in hor­ror from such events…

Adolf Hitler took upon him­self the full respon­si­bil­i­ty…. But the astound­ing thing is that the great Ger­man peo­ple, edu­cat­ed, sci­en­tif­ic, philo­soph­i­cal, roman­tic, the peo­ple of the Christ­mas tree, the peo­ple of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Beethoven, Heine, Leib­nitz, Kant and a hun­dred oth­er great names, have not only not resent­ed this hor­ri­ble blood-bath, but have endorsed it and acclaimed its author with the hon­ours not only of a sov­er­eign but almost of a god….

Can we real­ly believe that a hier­ar­chy and soci­ety built upon such deeds can be entrust­ed with the pos­ses­sion of the most prodi­gious mil­i­tary machin­ery yet planned among men? Can we believe that by such pow­ers the world may regain “the joy, the peace and glo­ry of mankind”? The answer, if answer there be, oth­er than the most appalling neg­a­tive, is con­tained in that mys­tery called HITLER.

The Hitler essays in retrospect

Churchill’s views plain­ly under­went no sig­nif­i­cant change dur­ing the two years span­ning his three Hitler essays. If his orig­i­nal descrip­tion of the Röhm purge dis­ap­peared, it did not affect the tenor of what he left in.

There is some­thing about those excised pas­sages that arrests the eye today. Because on 7 Octo­ber 2023, much the same thing hap­pened in Israel.

“All man­ner of peo­ple” were killed by mur­der­ers who “caught them in the streets, shot them in their beds, shot the wife who threw her­self before her hus­band…. Sin­is­ter vol­leys suc­ceed­ed each oth­er through a long morn­ing, after­noon and night.”

And again mankind recoiled in hor­ror. The only dif­fer­ence seems to be that in 1934 Ger­many, “rela­tions who ven­tured to inquire for the miss­ing father, broth­er or son received, after a con­sid­er­able inter­val, a small urn con­tain­ing cre­mat­ed ash­es.” In 2023, the bar­bar­ians didn’t both­er to do that.

Further reading

“Win­ston Churchill on Peace with Hitler,” 2023.

“Did Hitler Autho­rize the Flight of Rudolf Hess?” 2023.

“Hitler’s Sput­ter­ing Aus­tri­an Anschluss: Oppor­tu­ni­ty Missed?” 2020.

“The Myth that Churchill Admired Hitler,” 2017.

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